Perspective | 10.03.2018

Why we should never see a doctor in the afternoon (SxSW Day 2)

Not every presentation compels you to make significant, structural changes to how you go about your day. And then there was this morning’s ‘Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing’ talk by renowned author and behavioural psych specialist, Daniel Pink.


The science of timing is something that has been researched far and wide in fields as diverse as economics, biology and endocrinology. The problem, however, is that the researchers working in these disparate fields rarely knew of, or collaborated with one another, meaning very little had been done to cross reference or synthesise the findings. Daniel Pink set out to do just that, with some pretty intriguing results.


When we think about it, most units of measurement for time - seconds, minutes, hours, weeks, months - are completely arbitrary, man made constructs. The concept of a day, however, is grounded in something real - one spin of the earth on its axis. For this reason, much of Pink’s research focused on the hidden patterns of days, and how these patterns dramatically affect our mood and performance.


Citing research that traversed 500 million tweets, tens of thousands of earnings calls from publicly listed companies and standardised tests administered in high schools across Denmark, Pink found some striking similarities.


For around 80% of us, days follow a predictable path of peak (morning), trough (early afternoon) and recovery (late afternoon/evening). Our mood in each these periods deeply affects our performance, which in turn, affects our mood.



Controlling for fundamentals, tweets, earnings calls and scores on high school tests are all significantly more negative in the afternoon than they are in the morning. The same cities get grumpier. The same students get worse scores. The same stocks become temporarily underpriced. Often, with each passing hour we see a direct correlation with a reduction in the performance of an identical task.


The data shows that not only do our cognitive abilities fluctuate over the course of the day, but that the fluctuations are way bigger than we may have anticipated. In fact, time of day can explain up to 20% in the variance of human performance!


This is major, and should have deep implications for how we structure our days. Pink suggests that the best time to perform a task depends heavily on the nature of the task itself. In the morning, we’re better able to focus and bat away distractions, making it the ideal time to knock off analytical tasks that require concentration; writing, problem solving, planning.

As we hit our early afternoon trough, the reality is we’re not good for much. According to Pink, this is the time to nail low level tasks like emails, expense reports and admin.

When the late afternoon recovery rolls in, our mood lifts but we’re less vigilant, priming us perfectly for insight driven work like brainstorming. The looseness that characterises this stage sets us up to be open minded and more creative than at earlier times in the day.

While developing an action plan around this newfound info as individuals seems pretty straightforward, it begs the question of what we should be doing as organisations. In almost every business I’ve interacted with, the primary consideration for scheduling meetings is availability. While this is practical in one sense, it completely ignores the outcomes we’re trying to get from those meetings, and whether they’re analytical, administrative or creative.  

If I’ve learnt one thing at SXSW today, it’s to recognise that a meetings’ ‘when’ is actually a very strategic decision, and we need to handle it accordingly. And if I’ve learnt a second thing, it’s to never take the afternoon slot for a pitch.


Article details Author: Dan Monheit
Director of Strategy
Published: 10.03.2018


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